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Dan Agin

Dan Agin

Posted: May 2, 2010 12:52 PM

Books: Collectivism, Capitalism, and Propaganda in the New York Times Book Review

What's Your Reaction:

It's easy to get the feeling that we live in a land of calumny piled on baloney, a land where conservative newspapers masquerade as liberal press. Who but the New York Times would assign a foreign conservative hack to review a new liberal anti-capitalism book by Tony Judt? (Ill Fares the Land, Penguin Press). The reviewer, Josef Joffe, is a former publisher-editor of the German newspaper Die Zeit. (Joffe's review appears in the New York Times Book Review, May 2, 2010.)

Tony Judt's thesis is leftist-classic: Capitalism needs to be highly regulated in order to prevent the breeding and fomenting of greed and sociopathy.

Josef Joffe's counterargument is rightist-classic: Collectivism is evil because it leads to bureaucratic excess.

The problem is that Joffe ignores the most important difference between collectivism and capitalism: the focus of one is social justice, the focus of the other is the acquisition of private wealth. One can argue from now until doomsday which is "better" or more practical (practical for what?), but the difference in attitude about social justice remains the defining dichotomy.

In America, capitalism is hawked by so-called political conservatives, an ill-defined group ranging from a lunatic fringe to "think-tank" intellectuals over-burdened with vague college-student memories of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith and Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman. But the attitudes of the group toward social justice are never vague: they like to avoid the subject.

Conservative young people do not travel by bus to the American South to work in the civil rights movement and get murdered by racists.

Conservative old people do not vote to possibly reduce their health insurance benefits in order to assist people who have no health insurance at all.

A list of conservative anti-social-justice actions and inactions is easy to construct. Conservatism is not about social justice and is usually explicitly against social justice.

Beyond ignoring the most important difference between collectivism and capitalism, Joffe parades a series of fatuous Joffeisms. Herewith a sample:

1) Joffe says "cries of the heart" like Judt's have been common since Jeremiah and the lesser prophets.

Joffe makes a big deal of this: "Where have we heard this before?" He seems to think the fact that cries of the heart are repeated throughout history demotes their significance, a rather stupid conclusion. Yes, cries of the heart occurred in the Old Testament--and they also occurred in the Roman Empire, in the Middle Ages, in the slave trade, and in Auschwitz, again and again. Does that lessen their significance? Maybe for Joffe and his think-tank colleagues it does: "Oh, we've heard all that before," they say.

2) Joffe says Judt offers a very old idea: the "virtue of collective action for the collective good."

Well, yes. But does the fact that it's an "old idea" lessen its import? Joffe thinks so.

3) Joffe says: "Judt has to shoot a goodly number of straw men. Not even manic market radicals believe, as Judt avers, that private interest will produce enough public goods -- like public education or an interstate highway system. Who in the United States (except on the fringes of thought) insists that "any one person could be completely 'self-made'?" Certainly not Europe's favorite Beelzebub, George W. Bush, who pushed No Child Left Behind and a prescription drug program for the elderly. What is the land-grant university of the 19th century, what is Head Start, what is federal tuition assistance, what is affirmative action, if not testimony to the belief that the state must level the playing field?"

But what's more important -- and ignored by Joffe -- is that American conservatives fight against nearly every piece of progressive legislation, the consequence manic market radicalism. To read the paragraph above, you might think that American conservatives supported Pell grants and Head Start and affirmative action -- a joke worthy of Goebbels.

4) Joffe says: "The market is the best information system known to man: it has millions broadcasting in real time what is offered and what is wanted at what price. This is why capitalism learns from its crises."

This is fatuous baloney. As an information system, the market is thoroughly corrupted by misinformation, withholding of information, and by gaming of the system by individuals and institutions. The ideal clean free market has never been attained anywhere on a national scale. Treating the market with religious reverence derives from sophomoric illusions about economics and history.

5) Joffe says: "Sometimes, as in 2008, markets are not self-correcting, which is why government must step in. But let's hope it will pull out again; officials are not wiser or nobler because they come with a government title."

Well, yes. And free-marketers are also not "wiser or nobler" because they've been lucky in the Wall Street casino--or because they've learned how to game the system in a sociopathic delirium.

The left has always had too much ideology. And so has the right -- and the screed by Joffe is a good example of Rightist ideological propaganda. Reading Joffe, one sniffs the absurd idea that the free market is "manly."

The struggle for social justice requires tremendous courage. The idea that human misery should be considered as merely collateral damage in the hunt for capital assets is an idea suited to sociopaths but not at all suited to the human species.

The choice of Josef Joffe to review the new book by Tony Judt was an unfortunate and silly choice by the New York Times. It may get the New York Times some attention, but it acts against the good of the public. Next time choose a centrist to review a book on the left or right.